My Dark Vanessa By Kate Elizabeth Russell
Reviewed by Kimberly Cutter
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison spoke at length about the power and limitations of language. She described language’s capacity to oppress and liberate, honor and debase, illuminate and obscure. Most memorably (to me at least) she said that “unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”
I thought of this statement often while I was reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa. The book caused a sensation in the publishing industry when it came up for sale December of 2018, provoking a bidding war and ultimately selling for seven figures to William Morrow. Inspired by Russell’s relationships with older men when she was a teenager, the novel depicts the methodical seduction of fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye by her forty-two-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, and the life-shattering ramifications of their lengthy affair. Narrated by the character of Vanessa herself—now thirty-two and working a dead-end hotel job in Portland, Maine—the book has been described as “Lolita for the #MeToo era.”
The description is understandable, if unhelpful. Though both Lolita and the #MeToo movement play essential roles in My Dark Vanessa, perhaps the most impressive thing about Russell’s novel is how little it resembles either one. By which I mean to say: If Lolita uses language to seduce us into identifying with a pedophile, and the #MeToo movement uses language to demand social justice (and unfortunately tends to flatten us into one-dimensional victims or villains in the process), My Dark Vanessa succeeds—and is a triumph—because its aim is to illuminate one woman’s experience of sexual abuse in all of its emotional nuance and complexity (to come to know the experience, Morrison might say) and because Russell understands that only clear, fearless, unmolested language will get her there.
So. It’s the fall of 2017. The #MeToo movement is in full force. Vanessa works behind the concierge desk at a Portland hotel, smiling politely at guests and obsessively tracking victims’ allegations and conversations on Twitter while nibbling on the stale sandwich that is her life. Creatively stymied and unable to engage in intimate relationships, Vanessa (who was once an aspiring writer) hovers around the edges of society, consumed by memories of the obsessive sexual relationship she had with Strane during her sophomore year at boarding school and clinging desperately to the narrative that Strane was the great, star-crossed love of her life. But when another former student named Taylor Birch comes forward to accuse Strane, Vanessa is forced to re-examine their relationship—a process that threatens to destroy her sense of self and her most fiercely cherished beliefs.
It’s a terrific set-up. Once begun, the novel is almost impossible to put down. Russell began writing an early draft of the book when she was sixteen and continued to work on it for the next sixteen years (earning an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in the process). But she’s said that it was the powerful sense of alienation she experienced during the #MeToo movement that pushed the book into its final form. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” Russell has said. It was her frustration at seeing these experiences sensationalized and oversimplified, lumped together into a kind of shrieking victim stew, that made her realize the #MeToo movement could serve as a potent catalyst for deeper reckoning and reflection in her novel.
When we first meet Vanessa, she’s in grief therapy for the death of her father, who died six months earlier. (Oddly, Vanessa’s father is never discussed in relation to her fascination with older men, and this feels like an omission). During these sessions, almost by accident, Vanessa begins to narrate—and gradually reevaluate— her relationship with Strane. It’s a slow process, made more difficult by the fact that Vanessa refuses to think of herself as Strane’s victim, or of their relationship as abuse. “It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him,” Vanessa insists. “Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along.”
This, of course, is standard grooming b.s., but like all successful grooming, it speaks to Vanessa’s deepest self—a self that is lonely, smart, curious, romantic, and in desperate need of attention. It’s also enough to keep Vanessa trapped inside the glowing snow globe of her past decades later. Thanks to Strane, all of Vanessa’s notions of herself as special and gifted, potent and brilliant, are hopelessly enmeshed in their illicit relationship— which often felt to Vanessa like true love.
Russell has a remarkable gift for articulating the subtleties and fine-shadings of Vanessa’s emotions, and one of the novel’s great achievements is her depiction of the strange quicksand landscape of trauma (in which desire often shifts to pain or shame and back again in the blink of an eye) and the relentlessness with which that trauma continues to dominate Vanessa’s present. This is a landscape I’ve never seen fully rendered in literature before—an essential, still largely misunderstood aspect of human experience that comes to blazing life in Russell’s hands and, frankly, serves as a potent singlehanded response to anyone who questions the relevance of fiction in today’s reality-obsessed society.
The book is narrated almost entirely in the present tense, and this has the effect of creating a remarkable double-consciousness in the reader, plunging us deeply into Vanessa’s teenaged psyche whenever she remembers the past (so we experience her affair with Strane with the same thrill and exhiliration she does) while at the same time we, as conscious adults, cannot help but recognize and be sickened by the horror of Strane’s manipulation and depravity. We go from watching the fifteen-year-old Vanessa devour the copies of Lolita and Plath poems Strane gives her, delighting in the idea of herself as an incandescent demon nymphet with the power to destroy a man’s life—to realizing, with growing horror, that Vanessa has constructed her entire identity around this idea, and is still trapped inside it. At thirty-two, she still gazes longingly at the topless photos Strane took of her when she was fifteen, still gets lost in phone sex with the now sixty-nine-year-old Strane (who can no longer get an erection for her adult body) as he recounts their early encounters: Vanessa, you were young and dripping with beauty. You were teenage and erotic and so alive, it scared the hell out of me. Her entire film collection consists of May-December films like Pretty Baby and Lolita and Lost in Translation. Strane’s face super-imposes itself on strangers wherever Vanessa goes.
My Dark Vanessa is not a fun read. The sex scenes between Vanessa and Strane are nauseating, and so powerful that, at times, I had to put the book down. But the book is, at all times, utterly fascinating because Russell has ensnared us so deeply inside Vanessa’s psyche. We’re fully in the grips of her obsession; we understand precisely why this relationship matters so much to her, and we have to keep reading—in part to find out what happens to Vanessa, and in part because we need to be released from it as badly as she does.
Russell, of course, is fully aware of the narrative arc she’s crafting, and thanks to the combination of the #MeToo movement and Vanessa’s excellent therapist, Vanessa eventually begins to see her relationship with Strane for the manipulation that it is, and to recognize what her denial has cost her. At one point, she says, “Can you imagine the horror of your body signing up to star in something your mind couldn’t possibly consent to?” Increasingly, we can imagine. We feel how the airtight narrative dome Vanessa’s built around herself keeps her captive and stunted, cut off from her ability to fully feel and pursue dreams and desires of her own. As Vanessa says to her therapist, in perhaps the book’s most heartbreaking scene: “I just feel … I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know? I just really need it to be a love story… Because if it isn’t a love story then what is it? It’s my life. This has been my whole life.”
It has been her whole life—and in a very real sense, the affair also threatens to consume her future. Thanks to the presence of the #MeToo movement, Vanessa isn’t just forced to reckon with her past—she must also decide whether to out herself publicly as Strane’s victim in order to help fellow victim Taylor Birch in her quest for justice. Here too Russell refuses to provide easy answers. Vanessa understandably fears the oversimplification and potentially life-defining “branding” that would come with telling her story in a public forum like Twitter or a magazine article. The reward for speaking out may be justice (or at least support for Birch), but for the individual, the cost can be devastating. For Vanessa, release will only come from the full and fearless articulation of her experience— in seeing it clearly, soberly, and truthfully, with all its shadows and light intact.
Towards the end of the novel, Vanessa remembers a conversation with Strane:
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, driven toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.
Russell’s done something new here. She’s taken the nymphet—a one-dimensional character who’s lived in the shadows for so long, worshipped and unknowable, pitied and demonic—and replaced her with a real flesh and blood human. One who is all too relatable, all too familiar, all too much like us: hungry and heartbroken, hurt and healing. Thankfully, by the end of My Dark Vanessa, she is also, finally, Here.
Kimberly Cutter is a journalist and author of The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc.
Three Poems By Hannah Sullivan
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Hannah Sullivan thought she might write a novel about being a sharp-elbowed young woman in New York—raising an arm for cabs, kissing a girl, and getting a Brazilian waxing before saying ”I love you” to the wrong bastard she will remember for the rest of her life. She mentions this in a YouTube clip filmed after receiving the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018, adding she didn’t think she had anything original to bring to the novel form. So instead she turned the material into the verse chunks that comprise her exhilarating debut collection, Three Poems. Sullivan, a Brit, is thirty-nine and has one of those career carving, back-jacket bios—Harvard PhD, teaching jobs at Stanford and Oxford, awards and short lists up the wazoo—you would have to be dead set against her for. You can’t be. With her buzzing mind and technical brilliance, she deserves what she’s racked up, and her book asks us to think about the freedoms different genres afford writers.
Composing poetry in small bursts and dispensing with the nag of a narrative arc freed Sullivan’s voice of breathless, moment-to-moment consciousness. She could have done the same thing in the form of a novel, which would then have been called “a novel-in-prose-poems,” the way some books are called “a novel in stories.” These days I think we care less and less about the genre attached to a book. We care about narrative momentum and the layering of thought in a scene more than whether a story arrives at an ending somehow imminent in its launch.
Sullivan is right about the ordinariness of her life passages. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” looks back to the time you prove how young you are by notching your belt with forlorn experience you think is adult. The second poem, “Repeat Until Time,” meditates on repetition from the perspective of noticing it for the first time. The third poem, “Sandpit After Rain,” jump cuts between the death of the poet’s father and the birth of her first son. Most stories sound trite when summarized. The power of Sullivan’s writing is in its no-limits subject matter and riotous experiments with language. She freely admits to the autofictive component of her poems, but she’s not engaged with stuff because it happened to her. She’s engaged with what language can generate in the reader, and stuff that happened is what she hangs language on.
She has mentioned Joan Didion’s memoir “Goodbye to All That” and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as prompts for “You, Very Young in New York” and her use of the second person pronoun—an inclusive you (really a distanced variant of I)—that can feel cozy one moment and presumptuous the next. When men use you, they are doing what they always do: unconsciously assuming their readers are male. When a female writer uses you, she subversively implicates the male reader in female experience, and it’s thrilling, especially in the hands of a writer like Sullivan, who likes to push the reader’s face into the bodily.
“You, Very Young in New York” speeds like walkers on Broadway, capturing sudden intimacy that is also anonymous, capturing a time of life when you take vitamins without wondering what will happen if you stop. (Answer: nothing.) Whatever else the poem is about—writers sitting in Starbucks “Picking like pigeons at the tail of the mourning croissant”; a vibrator with low batteries that “rotates leisurely in your palm”; shorting the market; and feeling the tongue dry up as Ritalin kicks in—it’s about a doomed affair that sharpens your movie-scene recall.
In preparation for the potential fuck that awaits, Sullivan’s narrator says, you “take two Advil and lie/On a table in Chelsea holding yourself open, ‘stretch it’ she says,/Irritably sometimes, and ‘stretch’ as lavender wax wells/Voluptuously in hidden places, and ‘turn’ as you kneel on all fours/So she can clean you up behind and, still parting you open, her fingers/Spend one moment too long tissuing off the dead wax with almond oil and/’All done she pats ....” Finally, when the bastard shows up on a rooftop, “he says, ‘you’ve lost weight, you look great’ which is true/(He dumped you) you think of elderberry and magnolia, quietly pulling/At the silver-starred skirt, pulling it over the ripple of your thighs./But when he says one more, for old time’s sake, you say why not/And sit rigidly in a cab, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge beside him.”
Almost any experience can stir philosophical and historic associations for Sullivan. It’s what she’s after. In the second poem, contemplating a still photo from the 1961 movie The Black Cat, she notices an older woman “Squeezing her cat like a tantrum,” knowing “that 1960 was the future and JFK is in office” while a blond kid “in a tapestry waistcoat ... is waiting for the sixties to start, for the violence to be real./He looks like David Bowie on the cover of Young Americans,/Uranium-bright hair, a softly permed disco halo.” The second poem is set in San Francisco, where Sullivan lived while teaching at Stanford, and the third poem is set in England, her home and where she now lives, but the book feels like one long Alice in Wonderland dream of expansions and contractions.
Sometimes her fever of images is show-offy and doesn’t add anything to the moment contemplated. We don’t need to know, for example, that the look of lights going out in a high-rise across the way reminds the narrator of a Mondrian. Other people don’t seem real to her, even her dying father. Being a good writer does not make you a good person, and hats off to that. In the practice of writing, you don’t care about anything but the effect the writing will produce in the reader, and Sullivan bets she can net you by describing the “gristle” she pokes back into her father ’s neck rather than by measuring the meaning of his departure from her life. Sometimes, though, you have to pretend to be more human than you really are, lest the reader find you too cold, clinical, and fancy with your techniques. You have to stop with the writer-y writing in order to trick the reader into thinking you are an actual human with emotions you don’t have when you are writing.
She manages this often and perhaps most brilliantly in the third poem, first dwelling on the limbo plight of a saltwater eel in a suburban restaurant:
It wants to be rid of the tank, the shriek of lobsters,
The monotonous view of leatherette banquettes, The off-duty industry folk, greedily appraising, ‘Let’s do it half sashimi-style, half dry-fried-spicy’, And also not to be rid of the tank, to remain forever Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead, Eddying between two walls of bubbling glass. Learn something about indifference.
A few pages later, in a jump-cut to the Caesarian birth of her first child—a pregnancy that has forever banished the poet from limbo—she sympathizes with her unborn baby’s reluctance to leave his tank:
Under a tangle of capillaries,
A baby is dreaming of his old home.
The Sunday morning swimming pool
Of far-off children.
Then yellow glows in the curtains And his mouth snapdragons open
. . . .
This is the world:
The street-cleaning machine
The slow lob of rubbish
What can narrative offer if it lacks plot? It prints the shape of a mind looking at the world, and from that a pattern takes shape—which might be another word for personality. In all three poems, Sullivan masterfully follows the best recipe for narrative: start in the middle, fail to arrive, remember to love things, make the reader hot, and make the reader laugh. She knows there are no good endings. All endings are bad. That is why it is difficult to end a story, and you have to stop before the end. The standard ideas about endings, she doesn’t buy. Arrival, no. Death, no. Marriage, no. A baby, no. Love gained, no. Knowledge acquired, no. You have to look for the next tank.
Laurie Stone is a frequent contributor to WRB and author of My Life as an Animal: Stories and Everything is Personal, Notes on Now. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in Tin House, Open City, Threepenny Review, and n+1. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Making Comics By Lynda Barry
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
On page 140 of Lynda Barry’s newest book, Making Comics, she includes an exercise called “Instant Book Review.” I used it to write this one. Following Barry’s instructions, my materials were an 8.5 x 11 inch folded sheet of paper, a flair pen, and a timer (your phone’s fine, as long as it’s set to airplane mode). The book itself was not necessary. “If you have it out,” she instructs, “put it away.” Barry is the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair in Art and a professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has run Saturday drawing seminars at UW-Madison since 2012 that attract children and adults, grad students, doctoral candidates, fellow scientists, and all the beautiful regular people, who are Barry’s people. Though she was named a “genius” in 2019 by those who bestow the MacArthur Award, her work is devoted to those who who think they can’t draw, who are terrified and mortified by what they create, and who do not and may never see themselves as writers.
Making Comics begins with the rules of Barry’s classroom regarding attendance, grades, and materials—what kinds of pens, what kind of nonphoto blue pencil (“not easy to find … worth ordering!”), index cards with lines on one side, lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inch copy paper, and a regular composition notebook, the kind you can get at the drugstore for two bucks. “Your composition notebook is the backbone of this class,” writes Barry. “It is a place rather than a thing.”
The book’s cover design replicates a composition notebook, and the place is Barry’s classroom. The contents are page after page of activities and exercises you can do on your own or with people, under Barry’s strict guidance and care. Everything she wants you to try is laid out clearly and reinforced throughout the book; every expectation (“at least 90 minutes”) is specific and firm. “You don’t have to have any artistic skill to do this,” writes Barry. “You just need to be brave and sincere.” She creates pathways for all of us to make pictures and tell stories, using what she refers to in her talks and workshops as “the original digital device”—and she holds up her hand.
Making Comics, like much of Barry’s work as an artist and lay scientist, explores the concept of seeing, eyes open and eyes closed, in our mind’s eye and in the course of an ordinary day. “Notice what you notice,” she offers. See who and what shows up on the page, she tells us, in your own and one another ’s work—and, by all means, see and draw monsters.
Barry’s pursuit of the question “What is an image?” has caused a flood of books, each one so loaded with imagery, stories, and information that Barry once said at a reading that to sit down and read one from cover to cover would be like eating seven bouillon cubes. What It Is, Picture This, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, and now, Making Comics are only her most recent. Ernie Pook’s Comeek, featuring the blessed Marlys and beloved Maybonne (or is it the other way around?) was her first major contribution to comics. Since then, she’s offered, among others, The Good Times Are Killing Me, The Freddy Stories, and Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel. In her spellbinding One! Hundred! Demons!, Barry taught us a Chinese ink brush method of bringing our demons to life on the page and delighting in them, even when all they do is shit on our work. The image is the thing, she tells us again and again, and it’s alive. As a student in Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable course at Omega Institute, I’ve heard her call “the image”—even a demon and especially a monster—a “reason to stay.” By stay, she means here. She also means alive.
Her “Instant Book Review” exercise starts with a frame, which I drew and subdivided to contain the first four parts of the activity. “Inside of the frame is the live area,” Barry tells us. “Outside the frame is just paper. The frame is the enlivener.” I completed each part in brief bursts, with Barry’s prompts. All are meant to call up, so I can quickly jot down, what I remember from the book without looking at it:
What happened? List seven things in three minutes. Go.
What you saw (include what you “saw” in your mind’s eye)? List seven things, three minutes. Go.
A quote or phrase you remember. Thirty seconds. Go.
Make a small drawing of one of the characters from memory. Thirty seconds. Go.
The activity has four more parts to it. At the end of twenty minutes, the entire paper is covered with organized blocks of messy notes and quick drawings that make it clear how engaged “or not” I was with what I read.
Under the question of “what happened,” I noted the page where she tells you to draw yourself engaged in various activities (thirty-seven total)— for example, shooting out of a volcano, escaping from jail, dancing sadly, running from a giant snowball, vomiting. She teaches the Ivan Brunetti style of drawing people: big head, noodle arms and legs, snowball hands, jelly bean body, and basic features. “Kids draw this way naturally,” writes Barry, whose sample self portrait on this page wears glasses and a kerchief tied on top of her head. Her under-eye bags and chin fat, achieved in five tiny lines, make the drawing instantly hilarious. But it’s the lit cigarette she smokes in every selfportrait— even when she is a hot dog, even when she is Batman, even when she is a mandrake—that kills me every goddamn time.
When Barry invites me to imagine myself shooting out of a volcano, then breaking out of jail, then dancing sadly, then running from a giant snowball, then thirty-three more things—in Ivan Brunetti style—the physiological effect is an actual adrenaline rush. I am in danger, I am heroic, I am drenched in feeling, I am having all these adventures—and I haven’t even picked up a pen! My ten-year-old son knew the book had an activity where you draw Batman in sixty seconds, then fifty, then forty, then thirty, twenty-five, twenty, fifteen, ten, and five, and asked me could we please do that one together? So we did, and it was just as fun and funny as we thought it would be. We laughed and cursed when the timer made us stop. My son’s Batmans made me shriek with joy. He said, “Yours are better!” But I thought his were better. Neither of us was into our own Batmans, but we adored each other’s.
Barry anticipates this from students and gets ahead of it. “One of the best places to send a new drawing is into the hands of the person sitting next to you,” she advises, since we tend to be kinder to others people’s work. Throughout Making Comics, Barry illustrates the tragedy of art unloved by its maker by filling this book with her own exact copies of student drawings that she pulled out of the trash. She exalts these abandoned characters, who must have horrified or at least disappointed their creators. In this way, Barry honors both her students’ drawings and their impulse to destroy them.
Dozens of activities in Making Comics involve drawing some part of something and then passing the paper to the person next to you, who adds something new and passes it again—each student receiving and adding to the paper in front of them, letting it go to receive and add to another. Now, everyone is inclined to love or at least tolerate who or what shows up on the page because it isn’t ours alone—we are no more responsible for it being awful than we are for it being thrilling, gorgeous, and alive. In this and endless other ways, Barry gives each drawing “the kind of living chance it needs to survive its creator’s doubt.”
“Hold them so that the drawings can see each other,” she instructs her students, who (I see in my mind’s eye) raise their drawings and allow it to happen—not for critique, not for credit, but because the drawings have things to offer us and to say to us if we can stand to look and listen.
Inside Making Comics are at least a dozen different ways of doing a diary, including one where an animal you draw says the opening line of one of your diary entries from the week before. Another is called “You See It When It Sees You”— though the arrows that arc back and forth above the words of this title let me know it’s also called: “It Sees You When You See It.” In this diary exercise, what you draw gets to say what it sees when it looks at you drawing it. Then you draw what it sees (you) without a mirror, of course. The expression on your face, what you wear, your vibe, the shape of your mouth as you draw. The character can see it all. Of course it can. It’s us.
Then there is the one called “Blind Bones” where you draw an entire human skeleton without looking—using first a yellow marker, then orange, then blue—all within the same frame, eyes closed, a minute each. The effect of these three skeletons, layered and wonky on top of one another creates what Barry calls “a liveliness in the lines”—the effect of not knowing what the hell your hand is doing, and then repeating it. What you see when you open your eyes is a skeleton alive. No kidding. It’s moving. My pounding heartbeat tells me so. This skeleton, like so many of the other breath-giving images in Making Comics is Barry’s copy of a student’s work—who we might assume is not a “genius” though that is both irrelevant and the point. Look at what is happening there! When you notice what you notice. When you keep your pen moving. When you pass the drawing to someone who won’t kill it.
So that’s what happened. Here is what I saw: The outpourings and abundance of an artist whose own drawings did not survive her childhood (not a single one), and who tells us she watched, mesmerized, as one of her uncles, then a recent refugee to the US, obsessively drew monsters. He was later taken away by the cops—she never saw him after that. And here’s the quote I remember: “Have mercy on the unspeakable monster who has no other way to tell you it’s you.”
Anastasia Higginbotham is an author and illustrator. Her last book, Not My Idea, won a 2019 White Raven Award for children’s literature. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth By Cynthia and Julie Willett
Reviewed by Maeve Higgins
"I’m a comic, and it’s my job to name the elephant in the room. Anyone know what that is?” Electrifying words, shakily spoken by a young comic named Kelly Bachman at a variety show in New York this past October. The elephant in question, sitting in a booth and surrounded by young actors, was Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer currently facing criminal charges of predatory sexual assault, criminal sexual act, first degree rape, and third-degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is expected to begin in January 2020. Bachman didn’t name him, saying instead that “Freddy Krueger” was in the room, and continuing, “I have been raped, surprisingly by no one in this room, but I’ve never gotten to confront those guys.… So, just a general f*** you.” Bachman was frightened, funny, and feminist all at once, and I thought of her a lot when reading this book about how comedy has the potential to knock power off its throne. Authored by Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett, a philosophy professor and a history professor, respectively, Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth is quite an academic book, one that “assumes that ridicule operates on a multilayered field of affect and power where agents and their targets possess varying sources of status and social capital.”
We don’t need to study comedy to grasp the inherent power structure on which it operates; we could simply be any one or a combination of comedy’s historical targets, living in a female, queer, fat, black, or disabled body. The thesis the authors have, quoting Hannah Gadsby, is that “there does have to be a revolution of form in order to accommodate different voices.” They set this argument out over five well-researched and entertainingly written chapters, summing it up in a conclusion and a call to action that I found unexpectedly moving. Having performed in countries around the world and almost physically felt the weight of misogyny holding my fourteen year comedy career back at certain points, while also having moved to New York six years ago and witnessed, with some amount of glee, stand-up comedy evolve into something more inclusive and more fun than ever before, I am thrilled that these two smart women, sisters actually, are paying such care and attention to this corner of the entertainment business. They have lofty ambitions for what can be a grubby industry—“this book is about how humor from below can serve as a source of empowerment, a strategy for outrage and truth telling, a counter to fear, a source of joy and friendship, a cathartic treatment against unmerited shame, and even a means of empathetic connection and alliance”—and I am all for it.
“Fumerism” is up for discussion first. That’s a term coined by the stand-up Kate Clinton to capture “the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once.” Pulling on cultural theory (such as essays by Mary Douglas and Audre Lorde, as well as the comedy of Cameron Esposito, Tina Fey, and Zahra Noorbakhsh) the Willetts dive right into crucial questions of class, gender, and race and how these intersections vibe (or clash) with comedy. Do the feminist impulses in these artists and comics lead to a transformative strain in humor? The authors believe so, stating that “comedy can create a new kind of community, one based not on homogeneity or rigid identities but rather on a shared dislocation out of customary lines of identity.”
It took a moment for me to translate this, and when I did, I instantly thought about the lineup for a show I do every Monday night in Brooklyn with two of my friends, Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone. It’s booked by our producer, Marianne Ways, who is a long time in the business and whose taste reflects ours. She books the funniest people working, and she also keeps a spreadsheet of everyone she books, noting their gender and whether they are white or not. In her first year booking our show, 40 percent of the comics (not including us three female hosts) were female or non-binary and 33.5 percent were not white. This is a self-check, to see that she’s being inclusive, and she shares it online so comics and other bookers can see it, along with this note: “I don’t book people simply to fill a race/gender quota. I book people if they are funny and I aim to have a lineup of comedians who vary in many ways and bring different styles and points of view to a show.”
I get quite serious about inclusivity, too, but it’s not a moral thing, really. I spent so many years being the only woman in grotty greenrooms hearing the same old jokes about how weird and stupid women are, that I came to understand that the particular little world of stand-up comedy wasn’t designed for me. So now when I see people taking care in its redesign, I am thrilled—and protective.
At times, I wondered if the creation of “a new kind of community” was already happening in a way the authors are not quite aware of, perhaps because they are real life academics and not some dorks living at comedy clubs. Almost all the comics they studied and reference are over 35 and on TV. I do wish they had come to see shows rather than using Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as subjects. Those guys get so much credit, in the book and in general, but I’ve only ever seen them preaching to the choir. On the ground, in stand-up hubs like New York City, there are plenty of subversive voices just doing their thing on comedy stages: trans people, immigrants, fat people, differently abled people. They’re not waiting for the comedy world to change, they’re too busy building a new one. (It also miffed me when the authors laud the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm, and then credit Rob Reiner, the male director, when the incomparable Nora Ephron wrote the scene and the script.)
It’s not every day that I can read a professorial treatise about my colleagues, but a few arguments were a bit of a reach. There’s a whole chapter about animals and humor, for instance. I read it a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the documented cases of animals having a sense of humor—a macaw with a raucous laugh, a chimp pretending to use her hairbrush as a toothbrush, and mice befriending miners underground—but I just didn’t quite feel convinced that the critters were using humor to subvert the patriarchy.
Still, insights abound. The authors include a fabulous potted history of modern humor by basically whizzing through data collected by cultural historian Daniel Wickberg. They begin with the eighteenth century’s switch from ridicule to wit, provoked by sympathy for others’ oddities, on up through “the quasi-Stoic humor of selftranscendence,” probably developed in reaction to the horrifying absurdity of back-to-back World Wars. This brings us back to comedy as escape, a theme that, despite the arguments against it, never really goes away. I find that the worse things get in Trump’s America, the more raucous we get onstage, without ever mentioning what’s happening to us outside. It’s difficult to explain, I just know that when the news tells us that immigrant kids are being taken from their parents at the border, and late-night TV hosts get stuck in a whirlpool of self-righteousness but immigrant comics don’t speak directly about it, instead they get sillier and wilder and somehow more chaotic.
Finally, a chapter titled “Solidaric Empathy and a Prison Roast with Jeff Ross,” which discusses a roast at Brazos County Jail, surprised me. A roast is a ritual humiliation of a guest of honor, someone powerful, who is pummeled by jokes at his or her expense in front of an audience. Jeff Ross is often the maître-d at celebrity roasts on Comedy Central. It would be easy to dismiss any revelations uncovered by a wealthy white celebrity entering a space where people with none of those advantages are not just held in his thrall, but literally being held. The authors do a beautiful job of narrating what came next: namely, empathy, connection, and lots of laughs.
At the Texas jail, a gorgeous scene unfolds when Ross finds an amateur comic in the audience. She heckles, they banter, a connection is made and seemingly valued by both. In the end, “[b]y seeing prisoners as worthy of a roast, Ross honors those too often viewed by his audience as exiles, anointing them as members of the larger community.” Scenes like this one make a compelling case that there is potential for comedians to be the link between marginalized people and the mainstream. I’m relieved though, knowing myself and my colleagues, that the authors don’t expect us to take full responsibility for this enormous and important job. “We are not necessarily looking for comedians to lead a social movement,” the sisters Willet write. Phew! They just want to point out that in the comedy world, similar to other, more serious, decentered movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and #MeToo, our “absence of iconic top down leaders, foundational political ideologies, and a grand narrative style set the comic stage to address social conflicts differently.” We too can work from a place of pain and trauma to make people laugh, to punch up at those who cause that pain, to ultimately create something better. I guess that’s what Kelly Bachman managed to do, with a trembling voice that rang out clear as a bell, calling time on Weinstein that dark city night. Now that’s a beautiful ambition, one I hope we can live up to.
Maeve Higgins is a comedian and a contributing writer for the New York Times. She co-hosts (with Mary Robinson) the climate justice podcast “Mothers of Invention” and is a frequent contestant on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Her book, Maeve in America, was published last year.
Females By Andrea Long Chu
Reviewed by Madeleine Monson-Rosen
Andrea Long Chu is a wit. Like generations of the same before her, she delights in provocation, in mixing high theory with low ideas, in challenging orthodoxies, conventions, and taboos. She writes beautifully about bad (and good) television in her newsletter Paper View, and her recent essays, in n+1 and The New York Times Opinion page, have elaborated lyrical, but contrarian, analyses of her own experiences of her gender, her sexuality, and her desire. In Females, Chu weaves seemingly paradoxical theoretical argument with radically honest memoir. Part gender theory, part autobiography, Females takes on desire— rather, desire’s negation, rejection, disavowal, and denial—and makes that the basis for Chu’s, in her own words, “wildly tendentious” thesis: “Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.”
For Chu, the disavowal of desire is quintessentially female. She opens the book with an apology. “I am female. And you, dear reader, you are female, even—especially—if you are not a woman. Welcome. Sorry.” That “Welcome. Sorry” amounts to the essence of what it means to be female. “The thesis of this little book” Chu announces, “is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels.” “Welcome. Sorry” functions as an emblem, a dramatization, an enactment of what it means to be female: to make space for others, to submerge your own desires, to apologize for taking up space.
Everyone does this to some extent. “What makes gender gender,” Chu writes, “is the fact that it expresses, in every case, the desires of another. If sexual orientation is basically the social expression of one’s own sexuality, then gender is basically a social expression of someone else’s sexuality.” Understanding oneself as the object of someone else’s desire makes everyone female. Freud is here, of course, and Chu reads penis envy at some length (“Pussy envy is therefore not the mutually exclusive opposite of penis envy, but a universal desire atop which the latter develops as a reaction formation”). But one of the things that makes Females a particularly daring work is Chu’s choice to let her assertion stand on its own feet. Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Eve Sedgwick, and many other queer theory heavy hitters lurk under the surface, and future grad-student readers will undoubtedly make those implicit connections explicit, but here, Chu rests her thesis primarily on her reading of the life and work of Valerie Solanas, and on her own experience of desire and transition.
Prior to Females, Chu’s writing has been iconoclastic. Her New York Times essay, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” challenges the liberal narrative of gender transition as automatically fulfilling self-actualization. “Transition doesn’t have to make me happy for me to want it,” Chu argues. “On Liking Women,” published in n+1, challenges TERFs (transexclusionary radical feminists), even as it gives their paranoia some ground. TERFs claim that trans women are threatening, “gropey interlopers … conspiring to infiltrate women-only spaces.” Chu, a lesbian, ironically agrees. She expects to feel desire for women. Indeed, she argues that the most radical of feminists should welcome trans women, “Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” Here, she also previewed Females’ affection for Valerie Solanas: “The Society for Cutting Up Men is a rather fabulous name for a transsexual book club.”
Valerie Solanas “founded” The Society for Cutting Up Men, publishing the SCUM Manifesto in 1967 (although she also denied SCUM was an acronym). The scare quotes indicate the difficulty in discussing Solanas and SCUM in any kind of definitive way. Solanas sometimes referred to SCUM as an organization, sometimes not. She referred to the SCUM Manifesto as satire, sometimes. She associated with feminists, including NOW co-founder Ti-Grace Atkinson, but rejected feminism. Atkinson attended a SCUM recruitment meeting at the Chelsea Hotel, where, according to Chu, Solanas “unzipped her jeans and played with her clitoris.” Most (in)famous for her shooting of Andy Warhol and subsequent diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Solanas was a marginal member of Warhol’s Factory scene, a maybe-feminist who was, in Chu’s brief biography, “grifting her way around Greenwich Village in the early sixties, poor, often homeless, doing sex work, hanging with street queens, loitering in cheap automats—‘shooting the shit,’ as she liked to say.”
Solanas’s earlier work, the play Up Your Ass, is for Chu the locus classicus of femaleness. In Up Your Ass and SCUM, Solanas lays out her own paranoid, angry, sometimes-delusional theories of gender and difference. SCUM demands the end of men: “there remains to civicminded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” While the SCUM Manifesto perhaps more clearly crystallizes Solanas’s vision, Chu lets Bongi Perez, dirtbag protagonist of Up Your Ass, offer epigraphs to many of the chapters: “BONGI: I’m so female I’m subversive” inscribes the book’s opening. Solanas is, in a way, a sort of Dante’s Virgil for Chu’s argument, leading her, and the reader, through the logic of femaleness.
Solanas, “Valerie” to Chu, “lives in my head like a chain-smoking superego.” Her violent fantasies, hatreds, and desires lead Chu to a profound and uncompromising personal honesty. Indeed, this book suggests that perhaps every work of theory should be accompanied by some radical self-disclosure, in the name of ethics (Chu defines ethics as “commitment to a bit”). That selfdisclosure makes Females persuasive as a work of theory and profoundly affecting as a memoir.
Solanas’s near-universal, and violent, hatred, grounds the second part of Chu’s thesis. SCUM and Up Your Ass propose, in Chu’s summation, “misogyny against men.” For Chu, Solanas inverts the polarity of the gender binary: men are weak, passive, and vain while “women are cool, forceful, dynamic, and decisive.” In other words, Solanas’s work reveals that men are also females. The hatred of femaleness is, for Chu, a cultural wellspring, explaining, obviously, misogyny and transphobia but also eroticism and sexual desire per se. Chu posits this formula: to be female is to be shaped by another’s desire. There is no eroticism without thinking about somebody else’s desire for you; to enter into sexuality or eroticism one must imagine oneself as another ’s object. To do this is to be female, ergo, everyone is female.
Indeed, if everyone is female—and I’m hoping you’re starting to believe that they are—then autogynephilia [the desire for oneself as a woman] describes not an obscure paraphilic affliction but rather the basic structure of all human sexuality. This is not just because everyone has an erotic image of themselves as female—they do—but the assimilation of any erotic image is, by nature, female. To be female is, in every case, to be what someone else wants. At bottom, everyone is a sissy.
Along the way, Chu offers femaleness as an explanatory account of, among other things, The Matrix and its popularity among so-called “men’s rights” activists; another, related right-wing group known as the Proud Boys, who reject pornography and masturbation; porn, and the particular bigotry of the aforementioned TERFs. These readings are more than persuasive.
What makes Females such a pleasure for this reader (who as a grad student in the oughts was electrified by queer theory despite being, herself, straight and cis) is the explanatory power of Chu’s argument paired with the radical intimacy of her personal writing. Chu’s intellectual rigor is matched by her honesty. It is at once profoundly disconcerting and deeply persuasive. It will, no doubt, be controversial. It will, I know, electrify.
Madeleine Monson-Rosen has a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She writes mostly about the intersections of science, technology, and culture, and has contributed to The Millions, io9, and Real Life Magazine. She last wrote for WRB in 2016.
An Interview with Florence Howe By Jennifer Baumgardner
In 1970, at the height of the women’s movement, the Feminist Press was hatched in Baltimore by a literature professor named Florence Howe, her husband, and several volunteers. Fifty years later, it is the longest-running feminist press in the world. In the beginning, it republished classic work that had gone out of print, not because of quality or importance, but because it was written by women—books like The Yellow Wall-Paper, Life in the Iron Mills, and collected writings of Zora Neale Hurston (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive). Soon, the Press began publishing texts for the rapidly growing discipline of Women’s Studies, books like All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave and Witches, Midwives, & Nurses. For decades now, the Feminist Press has been housed at the City University of New York, and its offerings include translated fiction from around the world, new literary fiction, children’s books, and activist non-fiction.
I worked at FP from from 2013 to 2017. At the tail end of my tenure, I sat down with Florence at her Manhattan apartment to talk about her unique contribution to publishing and feminism. Stories tend to shift over time, not in ways that make them less accurate, but what is important to the narrator changes over the years. During our interview, Florence (then eighty-eight and now ninety) described the creation and stewardship of FP almost as if it were an accident, which is also how she recalled her work collecting the disparate Women’s Studies programs into a clearinghouse. Because I sat at her former desk for four years, however, I know how much determination went into not just starting the Press but making sure it survived. Florence’s will is immense, as is her vision. Most interesting to me, though, are the people she coaxed on to the board of directors, like her college friend Helene Goldfarb (also ninety), who remains the president of the board. Both modeled to me how much meaningful work keeps you young in mind and heart.
Jennifer Baumgardner: Give me a thumbnail sketch of your family of origin.
Florence Howe: I was born Florence Rosenfeld in 1929 and raised in Brooklyn. My father, Sam, was a taxi driver. My mother, Frances, had been a bookkeeper before they married and was a stay-at-home mom until the war, when she went to work in an airplane factory. Then she became Rosie the Riveter—they called her Rosie at work. She eventually became a bookkeeper again. She loved being independent of my father’s gambling; she didn’t have to beg him for money each night because she had her own paycheck. He was angry; he didn’t want his wife to work. But he was always proud of me, whatever I did. Typical working-class guy.
JB: What were you like as a young girl?
FH: Oh, I was sure I couldn’t do much except think. I was convinced I was ugly. My mother did that number on me: Isn’t it a pity that she has all the brains, and he—I had a younger brother who was blond—has all the looks? It harmed him, too, but to this day, I don’t think of myself as anything but what my mother called miskayt, which means “ugly person” in Yiddish. Once, I went to a therapist who made me bring in photographs of me and my brother. He said, “If I just showed you these photographs, what would you say about this little girl?” I guess I was dumbfounded. I said, “She was pretty cute.” And he said, “Why can’t you think of yourself that way?” I said, “Well, the miskayt is just too deep in my psyche.”
JB: It sounds like you got a lot of positive feedback for your intellect right away.
FH: Right away. I was told I was going to be a teacher because my mother had wanted to be a teacher. And so it was; that’s the way it went. I was very lucky to escape Brooklyn and go to Hunter College High School. I had a junior high school teacher who said if she coached me in math—which was not my best subject—I could probably pass the test for Hunter College High School. And I did. I was the only working-class kid in the school, at least as far as I could perceive it. The first thing they did was put me in “speech clinic,” because I was “speech-deficient” or whatever. They said I couldn’t speak properly because I had a Brooklyn accent.
JB: How did you do at Hunter?
FH: At the high school, I got Bs, but barely, and the only interchange I had with a teacher was not a great one. Miss Brubaker was my English teacher as a senior, and she was in charge of Annals, which was the yearbook. She said to me one day, privately, “You are the perfect B student, and I love you for it. You never miss an appointment; you’re always on time; you do your work; and you don’t have a creative bone in your body.” We had a gifted writer, even in high school, in that class: Cynthia Ozick. She got the A, and I got the B, and she never did any work for the Annals. She never had to. It was as though her creativity made her the editor—the star.
JB: You went to Hunter College. How was that experience?
FH: That was wonderful. I couldn’t do well at the high school, but at the college I was an immediate A student. I was very popular and into the student government. Before I was even a sophomore, I was head of the elections committee. That’s where I met Helene [Goldfarb, the longtime and beloved president of the Feminist Press board]. She became my kid sister, and everything I did, she did. So, because I’d been on the elections committee, she went on the elections committee. And then, the year I was a junior, I was president of the student government, and the year she was a junior, she was president of the student government. And we’ve been friends ever since. After college and graduate school, I was hired at Goucher, in Baltimore, as a one-year, temporary fill-in for somebody who was on leave. The following year somebody else was on leave, and the third year somebody still was on leave. That year, 1964, I got divorced [from second husband, Dr. Edmund Stanley Howe], and went to Mississippi to teach at the freedom schools. When I came back, I had tenure, which absolutely baffled me. Some people were really angry about this. I couldn’t figure out why I had tenure as an assistant professor.
First of all, no PhD, and I haven’t even applied for it. I think the president of Goucher was a civil libertarian who really cared about what was going on in civil rights. That’s the only sense I’ve ever made of it.
JB: Take me to the very beginnings: that meeting the Feminist Press came out of. What was going on in your life when you decided to call that meeting?
FH: After Mississippi, where students wrote such magnificent poems and even prose, I couldn’t understand why the Goucher students I had wrote such horrible, dull stuff. The only thing I had done differently for the students in Mississippi was include literature that was about black people and about freedom. We read Langston Hughes, for instance, alongside cummings and Williams.
In 1969, students in my eighteenth-century lit class said, “We couldn’t believe that you didn’t have any women on this reading list.” I said, “I don’t know any women [writers].” They didn’t know any women we could read, either. And that’s really what triggered the whole thing. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll found a Feminist Press.” I thought we’d do biographies of women. That was as far as my imagination could go.
It never dawned on me that there had been women writers who had written important books, been stars, been recognized for their writing, and then vanished. I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know that, in a sense, Austen was a contemporary of Wordsworth. When he was at university, she was at Bath—she couldn’t go to university. Even though my fields were British history and the whole history of British literature, I knew nothing about women. I approached Baltimore Women’s Liberation to help me start the press. They turned me down, but then they announced the existence of the press in their newsletter. Every little town had a feminist newsletter back then. And word traveled very fast, even though we had no faxes, no email, no computers. Word really got around.
JB: How did you know the word was out?
FH: I returned from Europe that summer and had a hundred letters about this new Feminist Press—many included donations. Some of it was cash, some of it was checks made out to the Feminist Press. I mean, it was crazy stuff! I did not deposit the money that was sent. I didn’t do anything for a while. I was furious that I somehow had a press coming to me that I had never said I would deal with. At the end of October, I wrote to everybody who had sent me a letter to announce a meeting. I told my students and a few friends, and of course everybody told somebody else. I said, if at least twenty-five people show up, and they agree to meet at least twice a month, we’ll have a Feminist Press. If not, I’ll send everybody’s money back. Fifty people turned up, and the enthusiasm was palpable.
We began with three biographies—Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Browning. We started on those, and there were a couple of children’s books: The Dragon and the Doctor, and Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, which was a historical book about the fact that there were women physicians as early as the nineteenth century. In fact, that book could be rescued today, probably. I must have a copy of it here somewhere. Three months into the Press, Tillie Olsen sent me a story that had appeared in The Atlantic in the middle of the nineteenth century—“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis—with instructions not to read it at night. Of course, I read it, and of course at night, and of course I didn’t sleep that night. I just cried and cried.
FH: Two reasons: One, the story is incredibly sad, but the other is that this literature should have been lost seemed to me the most horrible thing I could think of. It was like burying a live person.
I assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that, if this had been lost, then there would be others, and our job was to find them. Immediately we had a third series, the reprint series. What I fault myself for most these days is that I was never smart enough to get grant money just for that purpose. I did try for Indian literature, and I succeeded with our work in Africa [the Ford Foundation funded the development and publication of four anthologies of literature by women in Africa], but think of all the American literature we published, rescued, and re-published. We could’ve done much, much more.
JB: Let’s recap: in 1970, you’ve accidentally, or against your will, founded the Feminist Press, discovered an emergency mission to recover a lost literature by women, and, simultaneously, you helped create what would become women’s studies. How did that last part happen?
FH: My composition classes at Goucher were becoming known as “Women’s Studies.” Now, I never said I was teaching Women’s Studies or feminism. I was teaching people how to be better writers. I insisted on that. But other people said, “No, no, you’re teaching female consciousness.” I said, “I don’t even know what that means. Nonsense.” Nevertheless, the people at College English, which was a magazine, assigned me to write about my composition course. I did, and then I had a zillion people writing to me, asking specific questions. What was the curriculum? What worked? What didn’t work? So, I wrote more about that course. I had an extraordinary work-study student named Carol Allen, who was very bright and very interested in what was happening in Women’s Studies. She decided, practically without even talking to me, to collect the contact information from the letters I was getting and put it in a chart, which eventually became “Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies.”
JB: What year was this?
FH: I think it was the spring of ’72. Mariam Chamberlain, of the Ford Foundation, invited me to a meeting at her office. Mariam was data-driven. She said, “I hear you have data,” and I said, “Well, if you mean lists of people who are teaching Women’s Studies.” She said, “Yes, that’s data! I’d like you to do a complete report for us, maybe even a book, that lists all the courses and where they’re taught and by whom, so that we know where our starting place is.” She gave FP $12,000 to do this. We had no computers; we did the whole thing on little white notecards, and we had to write each notecard three times because we were going to organize the information by teacher, by institution, and by department. So, it was a long and very difficult task that could’ve been done quickly, had we had even one computer.
I gathered the Women’s Studies departments and programs on a list, and for twenty years I personally updated those until we had 630 different departments. I stopped in 1992. I’m not sure if the National Women’s Studies Association continues the practice now.
JB: Mariam Chamberlain was a fortuitous and loyal friend to the Press. Tell me about the African and Indian projects that Ford funded.
FH: The Indian project began because I was on a forced Fulbright in India— that’s a whole other story. I went around to universities and asked where the women writers were. Both women and men scholars in English and in History said there weren’t any, and if there had been any, they wouldn’t be any good, so why was I bothering them? That infuriated me.
I spent two years looking for Susie Tharu. I knew such a person must exist, but nobody knew her; she was teaching at a very small university in Hyderabad. When I found her, I knew I had found gold, because she was a literary scholar who could write, who could imagine, and who was a historian. I convinced her that collecting Indian women’s writing was political work, and that it was very important. What she did was magnificent. You know, there are seventeen languages in India, and we did, I think, nine or ten. She had teams of people in each of these languages, working to find and select the texts to translate. I worked on the translations. If we couldn’t agree, we ditched that text and took another one. She eventually found 600 women writers.
These women in India did the entire project for over ten years with no money and no support. It was an enormous undertaking. At the last minute, Ford had given a small grant for the finished product. When I stopped by to deliver the Indian books, Alison Bernstein [who had taken Mariam’s job when she retired] said, “Great. Africa must be next.” I said, “Not me. These women had no support and the Press is in debt because of those two books. I’m not getting in deeper with Africa.”
Two years later, Alison called me with a plan. She gave us $50,000 to support a conference in Accra, Ghana, at the tail end of a meeting of African literature specialists, just to see whether there was interest enough in an African project. By then, several CUNY scholars of African origin had been urging me onto this kind of project. I was very reluctant. I understood that Africa was fifty-four diverse countries, and there was no way we could handle surveying that literature without massive money—especially if we wanted it to be Africans speaking, the way the Indian project really was Indians speaking. I was very clear about that. It slowed the whole project, and before it was over, Alison was not a little impatient with us. The project did take fifteen years, but I’m not sorry.
JB: Why is it so significant to the Feminist Press’s vision—to your vision—that you undertook those kinds of projects.
FH: As with our recovery of literature by American women writers and European women writers, the African project and the Indian project indicate that the story is the same for them, that each continent and country has a lost history of women writers, and that, I assume, Estonia and Latvia and all of these other countries in the world have a similar history.
In fact, the last book that I had anything to do with before I left the Press was from North Korea. Even before North Korea was North Korea, but from the northern part of the land mass called Korea. It’s a book that dates to the 1930s, by a woman that we published because a guy who’s getting a Harvard degree found it, translated it, and sent me his introduction and a copy of the translation, which was brilliant.
I really believe that there’s still much to be found. I don’t know if anybody’s looking. That’s the question.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.
The Witches Are Coming By Lindy West
Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power By Sady Doyle
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
In my college days in the nineties, I dabbled in the dark arts. I was leaning into feminism, living in an activist collective called the Lilith House, and writing angry term papers, about apocrypha wherein women weren't the scapegoats of humanity (I’m looking at you, Eve), or goddess relitions featuring too many references to the word “chalice.” I had a friend who was a practicing Wiccan from Alaska who would lead our little baby coven through rituals in a sad room in the library that was sorely lacking in broody pagan atmosphere. At the same time across the country, in New York, my older sister was forming a coven with her colleagues at Ms. magazine, where they would do things like banish the patriarchy, ritualistically. In a comedic twist, my sister ended up with an embodiment of the patriarchy—a disfigured blob of a melted beeswax fertility goddess candle (natch)— in her purse, which she toted around with mounting anxiety for about a week. She was supposed to dispose of it in a body of water, but she could never get herself to the East River. Eventually, she flushed it down the toilet. AND THAT’S HOW DONALD TRUMP WAS BORN.
No, not really. But all this witch work does have something to do with the Dark Lord himself—or at least that bubbling toxic cauldron of goo he represents. After all, my sister and I were young and pissed off, emerging from our childhood chrysalis to realize that everything was pretty much patriarchy out here. In the face of frat boy rape culture and “flirty” bosses, performing spells and smudging the air with sage “felt” like taking our power back. It made us feel energized and radical and freaky.
Lindy West’s punchy new book of cultural essays, The Witches Are Coming, asserts that we need to tap into our inner witch to face this overwhelming Trumpian era of oppression. The New York Times columnist and author of a memoir, Shrill, sounds off on everything that is getting under her skin these days—and hold my chalice, because the list is long and granular. For instance, Grumpy Cat’s owners originally named him “Tard” but when the feline became famous, wouldn’t admit that they were making a disability joke, insisting that it stood for “tardar sauce.” (Wait, what?) Chip and Joanna Gaines from the reality show Fixer Upper refused to disavow their pastor who performs gay conversion therapy. West transforms these slights against accountability into a discussion of our culture’s love affair with lies, and by extension, the malignant effects of the right wing and the Liar-in-Chief. She offers an exegesis on Adam Sandler’s film oeuvre (Adam Sandler as an angry man-baby with a speech impediment who urinates in public yet is the best at [insert skill] and attractive to hot ladies) as an example of how white men are allowed to “fail upward.”
“I don’t begrudge the straight white boys their abundance,” West sighs, “I just wish the rest of us had had the same.” Similarly, she discusses Netflix documentaries valorizing “charming” Ted Bundy and the “mastermind” Fyre Festival thief, Billy McFarland. (Side note: West has a real gift for smack talk that will make readers laugh out loud, or at least I did. McFarland “looks like the producers spread peanut butter on his tongue and then had his audio dubbed by a frat guy halfway through dying of alcohol poisoning . . . He seems to be, to put it charitably, barely alive.”) Of course, this brings us to the biggest white man to trip to the top, Donald Trump—“a racist shart in an eight-foot tie.” (I’m putting that on a T-shirt.) Are women allowed such spectacular cheats, cons, and stumbles?
West writes, “Watching otherwise rational human beings rhapsodize about Bundy’s ‘charm’ and ‘brilliance’ while furrowing their brows over Elizabeth Warren’s ‘likability’ creates a particularly American kind of whiplash.” The quest for likability, West states, is a trap keeping women from accruing real power, and, furthermore, why would anyone want to be likable in a racist, sexist world? Let us all embrace unlikability instead—our witch self “who speaks the truth, who punctures the con, who kills your joy if your joy is killing.” You might be wondering, as I was, why is she harping about Adam Sandler in a collection of feminist essays? Fun as it is, do we really need to go deep on Goop, South Park bros, and an online bulletin board for buying music gear? Don’t we have bigger fools to fry? West’s strategy is to train her eye on a cultural microcosm and show how it fits into the larger universe of justice and representation, tackling ideas like white supremacy, fat phobia, the environment, and political correctness along the way. As she says, “Hollywood is both a perfect and bizarre vanguard in the war for culture change. Perfect because its reach is so vast, its influences so potent; bizarre because television and movies are how a great many toxic ideas embed themselves inside us in the first place.”
And that brings me to a darker (but still pretty funny) version of the same story, Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, which takes an unsparing—even Lilith Houseesque— look at representations of women and female power in literature, movies, and myth. Doyle divides her pop culture study into three parts—Daughters, Wives, and Mothers, the only female archetypes under patriarchy—and uncovers “the violence it takes to keep her in that box.” Doyle hammers the messages that the fear of women— their sexual power and life force—is the most important part of misogyny, and cultural stories teach women what will happen if we break out of our cage. Like West, Doyle has a love for media minutia, and she leaves no stone unturned when she is digging into urban legends, horror movies, true crime, Gothic novels, and ghost stories.
First, she focuses on “Daughters,” specifically on the phenomenon that was The Exorcist in 1973, which, she argues, had a huge effect on how pubescent girls were treated around the world. “The Catholic Church experienced an ‘exorcism boom’ . . . transforming a once-obscure medieval ritual into a cornerstone of the faith,” writes Doyle. There have been thousands of exorcisms since, 75 percent of which are performed on women and a majority of those, victims of sexual abuse. Labeling the pimpled, masturbating, bloody, defiant Regan (played by Linda Blair) as possessed, rather than pubescent, tells us that female sexual maturity is not natural—it’s demonic, or it’s a death sentence. In slasher movies, there is a convention Doyle calls the “dead blonde” wherein female experimentation and trust end in massacre. Interestingly, women are a huge audience for slasher flicks and true-crime podcasts, and Doyle thinks women are consuming these stories for ritual catharsis (and perhaps safety instructions for real life):
Slasher movies are a release, in part because they give a name and a face to a problem. They transform our culture’s underlying sexual violence into spectacle and story, giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for; they cathect all that low-level anxiety into a quick, bright, bloody burst of fear.
Next up is “Wives,” in which Doyle unloads soul-crushing statistics about the unhappiness of women in marriage; a 2017 survey by the National Health Service found that women were unhappier than men throughout their lives, mainly during child-raising years, followed by a steep uptick in happiness in their mid-eighties because their husbands were dead. (I underlined and sent this to my husband, just so he would know.) The mythology around marriage, then, has to underscore that women who yearn for more will also be destroyed, like in Daphne du Maurier ’s novel, Rebecca, “where even the happiest marriage is a nightmare of cruelty and thwarted female needs,” says Doyle.
Speaking of thwarted females, Doyle really hits her stride in the “Mothers” section. Women experiencing the primal power of childbirth are monstrous when they straddle the divide between birth and death, and this image of monstrousness is found everywhere from early creation myths to Alien. She describes the archaic mother seen in Jurassic Park, “a tale of heroic male scientists working to contain carnivorous, reptilian, female dinosaurs,” as a fantasy of women taking back their power.
Sadly, it’s not all Sasha Fierce dinosaurs for us moms, as the patriarchy works very hard to push the Perfect Mother narrative of a woman who is consumed and devoted to her children at the expense of her own needs. Ghost stories, like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, are good ways to see what happens when women must deny their personhood:
Having kids is a good way to get yourself haunted. Mothers are the people who repress and deny the most psychic energy, who are encouraged to live in a perpetual state of self-abnegation; we create a new ghost every time we breathe, every time we bite back a harsh word or renounce an ambition or cancel a plan for the child’s more pressing needs. When mothers try to live the way our culture encourages us to, as almost literally selfless vehicles for others’ fulfillment, we become something else; something cold and hungry, something you wouldn’t want to see standing over your bed in the dark.
Both of my sons (ages five and ten) claim to have nightmares several times a week. Reading Doyle, this suddenly made sense. “Yes, dear. There is something under the bed—my unfulfilled ambitions!” What’s a woman to do with these crappy choices—evil mothers, massacred blondes, pubescent demons, and carnivorous beasts? Doyle’s answer, like West’s, is to embrace the woman living outside of society, the one outside the bounds of patriarchal rule—the witch. “Witches are women with social and economic clout; women who get what they want, and whom it is unwise to dismiss or demean,” Doyle writes. “They give us a way to imagine female power.” It might be time to break out the goddess candles and flush some patriarchy down the toilet.
Jessica Baumgardner is a former magazine editor currently working on a series of despairing essays about motherhood. She lives in LA.
The Riot Grrrl Collection Edited by Lisa Darms
Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture Edited by Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
Whenever I teach a special collections session about the history of selfpublished American literature, I begin by asking students what comes to mind when they think of self-publishing. Undergraduates, like many of us, often see it as the domain of obscure writers who aren’t good enough to get a book deal. They are surprised when I tell them about Walt Whitman self-publishing Leaves of Grass, one of the most important and innovative works in American literature. They are intrigued to learn about Charlotte Perkins Gilman (of The Yellow Wall Paper fame) producing and distributing her own feminist journal, The Forerunner, to counter traditional women’s magazines of the era. They are moved by the self-published slave narratives of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly given the obstacles these writers had to overcome and the risk involved in writing and disseminating their works. Self-publishing has a long and distinguished history as a means of getting works into print considered too radical, transgressive, or otherwise unmarketable by commercial publishers. It has been a way for marginalized writers to tell their stories, reach likeminded readers, and inspire change even when mainstream audiences weren’t ready or the writer had no interest in working within the system.
Zines—small-circulation magazines made for passion rather than profit—are part of the tradition of self-publishing and were integral to Riot Grrrl during early 1990s. Riot Grrrl was an underground, feminist movement sparked by anger about the misogyny in the punk scenes in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. It sought to create safe spaces for women and encourage them to make their voices heard, particularly through artistic and creative outlets. The music of a handful of Riot Grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile received the most attention in the press, but it was the many zines that fueled the movement. They relayed information and resources (such as self-defense strategies or how to record an album), fostered friendships, and built networks. They were DIY (do-it-yourself): hand-lettered or typed, illustrated via collage, printed and bound via xerox and staple, and distribution was by handwritten “subscription” notes exhorting a reader to send $1 and an SASE to the writer to receive the next issue. They were proof to both the writers and readers that they were not alone in their experiences, frustrations, and hopes. In her opening essay to The Riot Grrrl Collection, writer and musician (and zine-maker) Johanna Fateman declares that, “Whatever Riot Grrrl became … it began as a zine.”
Nearly thirty years after the Riot Grrrl movement began, interest in it has only continued to grow. This spring, tickets sold out immediately to Bikini Kill’s first shows since 1997. Nostalgia for the 1990s may have played a part, but there is something more substantial here, too. Once derided and dismissed, Riot Grrrl has become recognized as a vital movement critical to understanding not only feminist history, but turn of the century American culture. Over the past ten years, archival collections documenting the movement have been established at academic institutions; a donation from Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna began NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection in 2010. Increasingly, Riot Grrrl has been the subject of documentaries, popular books, and scholarly articles. While the movement is important for understanding the past, its message continues to be disappointingly relevant. In the era of MeToo, Riot Grrrl’s condemnation of sexism, sexual violence, and gender power imbalance remains crucial and necessary.
The Riot Grrrl Collection, which features zines and other materials from NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections, is a recognition of both the movement’s legacy and the need for a better understanding of it. The volume’s editor, Lisa Darms, says that the impetus for the book was “to make the content of these smart, radical texts more broadly available, because so much coverage of Riot Grrrl has been focused on its image instead of its message.” Photocopied and stapled booklets produced in small numbers, Riot Grrrl zines were made to document the moment and communicate with others rather than stand the test of time. The copies that survive today are in special collections, private collections, and zine libraries, meaning that they are not easily obtained by the general public. Yet they are some of the movement’s most thought-provoking and affecting creative works. The Riot Grrrl Collection provides direct access to these rare publications, making it unique and essential among the growing number of publications on the subject.
The anthology contains excerpts and full reprints of nearly two dozen zines created between 1989 and 1996. The writings focus on subjects that became synonymous with Riot Grrrl, such as feminism, sexuality, racism, homophobia, sexism, and sexual harassment. Band interviews and zine and show reviews—standard fare for punk zines— are a reminder of Riot Grrrl’s roots and the specific scene in which these works were produced. Mainstream media depicted the movement as one propelled exclusively by anger, but the personal essays in the anthology are also just as often funny, sarcastic, and optimistic, and frequently make explicit the link between the personal and the collective, feminist politics and daily life.
How to define Riot Grrrl and why the movement is important are central questions that appear across several zines. A quote included in Riot Grrrl NYC 5’s “What Riot Grrrl Means to Me” states that “Riot Grrrl is about how cool it is to be a girl and about how hard it is to be one sometimes.” In the zine, What Is a Riot Grrrl, Anyway? a writer named Angelique describes “how beautiful and alive and free I can feel in a girl environment that is non-competitive and supportive and engaging.” Bikini Kill 2 argues that’s “BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politicsreal lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how what we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.” These moments show Riot Grrrl zines at their most exciting, as sites of exploration, self-actualization, and critical engagement.
Comprising large, full-color reprints, The Riot Grrrl Collection is a visually arresting book. Unconventional layouts and design show the medium’s capacity for experimentation and innovation. Some pieces are handwritten, others typed, some are a combination of the two. There are drawings, collages, grainy photos, and repurposed content from newspapers and magazines. Pages with typos, mistakes, or scratched out words evoke zine scholar Stephen Duncombe’s sentiment that zines “with all their seams showing” invite readers to examine how they are made and realize how easy it would be to create their own.
The collection is also a reminder that Riot Grrrl was more than just one band or a spokesperson, but a multiplicity of people, voices, and experiences. Certainly, zines by some of the best-known figures are represented, such as Girl Germs, by members of Bratmobile, and the eponymous zine by Bikini Kill, two of the earliest publications that helped activate the movement. Yet these make up just a portion of the more than 350-page book. Also included are Nomy Lamm’s I’m So Fucking Beautiful, which examines fatphobia, body image, and selfacceptance; queer zines such as Matt Wobensmith’s music-centric Outpunk and Tammy Rae Carland’s lesbian and pop culture-focused I (heart) Amy Carter; and zines by writers of color such as Ramdasha Bikceem’s Gunk and Mimi Thi Ngyuen’s Slant, which critique Riot Grrrl’s prioritization of the experiences and perspectives of white, straight, middle-class women.
While photocopied zines are still ubiquitous today, the internet, affordable design software, and cheaper, high-quality printing options have made it increasingly possible to produce a self-published zine that looks sleek and polished. Although many mainstream magazines are struggling to stay in business, their independent counterparts, particularly those that have gained a devoted following by addressing a previously unmet need, such as gal-dem, an online and print publication sharing perspectives from women and nonbinary people of color and She Shreds, the only print magazine about women guitarists and bassists, have thrived. Such magazines suggest that print is not only still relevant, but also still has the ability to do exciting, significant work.
In 2009, photographer Amos Mac and writer and artist Rocco Kayiatos saw a need for a publication about trans men by trans men. As they planned, their initial idea of making a color-xerox zine grew to a serialized quarterly. Mac learned InDesign, the pair drew on their personal networks to line up individuals to feature in the first issue, and after much searching, they located a print shop willing to print a trans magazine. Amidst the beginning of the recession and growing rumblings that print was dead, they launched Original Plumbing (OP). Enthusiastic but unsure of the project’s viability, they decided to give it a year. OP, however, was an immediate success, with its first issue selling out before it left the printer. Mac and Kayiatos’s new anthology, Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture, features their favorite moments from the publication, which celebrated its twentieth and final issue earlier this year.
As the first-ever publication dedicated to trans male culture, OP was more than just a magazine: it provided visibility, personal stories, and information to a historically marginalized, largely invisible community. In their introduction to the collection, Mac and Kayiatos describe the quarterly as a “snapshot of the community made from within the community” intended to “share other trans people’s stories without making it ‘Trans 101’ or exploitative.” OP’s tone, too, was part of its appeal: alternately playful and serious, consistently hopeful, always direct. (This is perhaps most immediately apparent in the publication’s name, a term used in Craigslist personal ads by trans men who haven’t had genital reconstruction surgery.)
The compilation contains selections from each of the magazine’s thematic issues, which covered a wide range of topics over the years, from family, to art, jocks, heroes, hair, and bathrooms. There are first-person essays—such as ruminations on the fraught space of the locker room and an account about being the “transgender guest” on a daytime talk show—articles like “A Holistic Approach to Trans Health” and “Trans on Film, 1919–1999,” as well as pieces that fall outside of easy categorization, including a series of letters between the editors’ moms that reflects on parenting a transgender child. Interviews, however, are the anthology’s focus. Profiles of trans and queer icons such as activist Lou Sullivan, writer and director Silas Howard, and writer, host, and activist Janet Mock are featured alongside equally compelling ones of individuals in the trans community such as a skateboarder, an ACLU lawyer, and leather club members.
The collection also shows that the magazine’s photography was as vital to its mission as the writing. Mac and Kayiatos have said that OP’s look and feel was “influenced by teen magazine aesthetics and vintage physique pictorials.” That it depicted trans people as desirable was significant, but OP’s visuals did more than this. Like the interviews, the photospreads reveal a wide variety of ages, sexualities, races, and states of transition, emphasizing that there’s not one way to be transgender. Yet flipping through The Best Ten Years a common theme quickly emerges: many of the portraits shows their subjects relaxed, confident, and smiling. OP’s imagery was a deliberate and powerful rebuttal to representations of transgender people in mainstream media. Within the packaging of pithy profiles and glossy images, OP insisted not only on the humanity and complexity of trans individuals, but their happiness and fulfillment.
While OP had a clear perspective and aesthetic from the start, the compilation, which is arranged chronologically, allows readers to see the magazine’s evolution as well. Mac and Kayiatos state in their introduction to the volume that, “as language and identities shifted over the years, the pages of OP featured work not only by those who identify as FTM, trans male, or men of trans experiences but also many who are nonbinary, genderqueer, and transmasculine of center.” Mac also has noted that while he initially was primarily interested in creating a sexy magazine—most evident in the publication’s first issue—OP’s focus later broadened and became more expansive. Such adjustments show the editors’ commitment to creating a publication responsive to the priorities and interests of the community it served.
Much has changed for the transgender community since the publication of OP’s first issue ten years ago. The efforts of the transgender civil rights movement, increased visibility in mainstream media, and the proliferation of websites, social media, and platforms such as YouTube enabling transgender people to access information and connect with others have altered the landscape. OP played a pivotal role in this transformation, documenting and championing the lives and experiences of trans men. Yet the community it strove to nurture also went beyond the page. As the magazine grew, Mac and Kiaytos organized release parties and events for readers across the US. These occasions served the dual purpose of providing occasions for building community, relationships, and friendships as well as supporting the magazine and ensuring its longevity.
The Riot Grrrl Collection and Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture are essential, inspiring collections. They provide valuable contributions to our understanding of the communities they grew out of as well as an opportunity to reflect on how they helped shape our world today. In her introduction, Lisa Darms notes that her training as an archivist fostered her understanding that what is considered “historically important is about what is saved.” Because of their unruly, ephemeral nature, zines and other selfpublished works haven’t always been easy to save. Both The Riot Grrrl Collection and Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture are in keeping with the mission of the Feminist Press— doing the important work of preserving these groundbreaking publications and making them more accessible to a wider audience.
Jolie Braun is the Curator of Modern Literature & Manuscripts in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Ohio State University, where she teaches with self-published materials and is building a zine collection.
Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement Edited by Shelley Oria
Reviewed by Andi Zeisler
It’s been two years since #MeToo grew from a modest hashtag to become a movement that destabilized previously bullet-proof icons of power, and in the process put to rest the sneering assessment of social-media activism as a toothless performance of wokeness. But the question of whether the effort to make sexual harassers, coercers, and abusers accountable for their actions has “worked” is one that the media news cycle has worried over more or less since it began. With no agreed-upon metric for what constitutes success, the answer seems to be ... maybe?
Yes, a handful of the high-profile men whose patterns of behavior yielded a critical mass of allegations and evidence have seen actual consequences: They’ve had the C’s, E’s, and O’s stripped from their titles, lost lucrative broadcast deals, been made socially radioactive, and, in at least one case, seen criminal prosecution. And there’s no question that #MeToo mainstreamed a vocabulary to describe the range of behaviors that may not qualify as outright assault or quid pro quo harassment, but that nevertheless have a demonstrable negative impact on the livelihoods, careers, and potential of too many women.
On the other hand, it’s clear that more than a few public figures believe that #MeToo is a kind of frustrating career roadblock that they can get around with a combination of strategy and timing, tiptoeing back into book deals and radio shows and comedy clubs, shell-shocked by the indignity of consequences. Furthermore, there seems to be a misunderstanding in some corners that what curbing sexual harassment in workplaces demands is not less sexual harassment or even a more equitable leadership model, but fewer women who might potentially cause problems.
But it’s undeniable that the same urge to promote solidarity among survivors that in 2006 prompted Tarana Burke to type those two words into a MySpace account remains necessary in what mainstream media insist on calling the “post– #MeToo era.” The importance of #MeToo is that it helped us recognize with retroactive clarity that history has always minimized, erased, and reworded the lived realities of women. We only had to flip the tapestry to see how many women— trailblazers and unsung heroes, “difficult” outcasts and national laughingstocks—were connected within a complex tangle of threads and loose ends.
To document social change as it happens—and to do so in a time when news never stops breaking—is challenge enough, but capturing #MeToo with nuance and care requires reckoning with the number of stories that have no measurable outcomes and no neat endings. Impeccably reported new books like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin’s The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, or Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and the Conspiracy to Protect Predators are gripping, but they still keep the focus largely on the perpetrators.
This makes the new anthology Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, seem even more unassuming by comparison. The book, whose title is taken from Christine Blasey Ford’s September 2018 testimony during the confirmation hearings of now-seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, collects 22 personal essays, poems, and prose pieces, all brimming with emotion that’s barely contained by their brief format. Edited by author Shelly Oria, the book has none of the advance publicity of this fall’s meaty #MeToo titles; it feels consciously compact, a kind of jewel box of literary voices, each piece reflecting the shine of its neighbors while nestled in its own velvet nook. Written by authors with identities that are underrepresented in #MeToo’s public face, including women of color and queer and transgender people, some of the work is impressionistic. Some is straightforward, linear, timely. Some are clearly fiction, others fiction that feel like nonfiction—in Oria’s own contribution, alltoo- real violence (a woman hands out pamphlets about her friend who was hit by a car while trying to get away from a street harasser) is interrupted by wish-fulfilling violence (the narrator murders a man who asks how she knew the friend); the cartoonishness of the latter feels almost unfairly amplified by the believability of the former.
Many of the works in the book speak to the first part of Blasey Ford’s recollection, the way she identified, with clinical precision, the hidden place where sickeningly familiar memories are stored. “Indelible” stands at odds with the American legal system’s regularly dismissive approach to cases of sexual harassment and assault, its age-old assumption of women as unreliable narrators of their own lives. But indelible does not mean inflexible. As Kaitlyn Greenridge notes in the book’s first essay, “Your Story Is Yours,” the manner in which we give voice experiences of harassment, abuse, and coercion can be dependent on who is listening, who will understand, who will believe. (“You used to tell the story as a joke. It was easier that way.”) Karissa Chen echoes this indelible malleable in “My Body, My Story,” writing “Sometimes my body tells me things whether I want to know them or not.”
But the second half of Blasey Ford’s statement— the part about the laughter—is less in evidence here. What she acknowledged is that sexual predation and humiliation have long been sanctioned experiences of male bonding: The laughter is the point. The groping, the dick-waving, the sexual mocking are the means to an end; the recipient of them just the vehicle. Childhood sexualization, purposely humiliating advances, and cruel humor have punctuated #MeToo tales like a joke-shop can of mixed nuts, opening and reopening to eject a springloaded snake with a loud pop, surprising even when you know it’s coming. The experience of being the butt of a joke and also being expected to laugh simmers in Indelible’s subtext, but remains underexplored in these writings.
That’s not to say that the pieces themselves don’t contain the dark humor that feels necessary to numb #MeToo’s painful mundanity: the Twitter post you write when a favorite actor’s name trends on Twitter and you hope fervently that they’ve died and not, say, harassed someone out of a career, the grim eyeroll shared with a coworker as you listen to a higher-up plead the innocence of his pal who would never, ever send creepy after-hours DMs. Not surprisingly, one of Indelible’s standout pieces lampoons the absurd, inescapable mediation of #MeToo: Elisa Schappell’s “Re: Your Rape Story,” plays out in emails between a freelance writer and her editor as they wrestle with what needs to be a simultaneously tragic, triumphant, and marketable account. (“This shouldn’t be hard for you, just tell us what happened to you, and how you got past it. I am not saying that the ending has to be uplifting, but you know.”)
The question of who Indelible in the Hippocampus is for seems worth asking. #MeToo has established that a critical mass of us have experiences that hit points all along this spectrum; social media and the demand for daily content have offered a wealth of them. The anthology’s straightforward intentions— we have stories, here they are—are neither trajectory nor incitement. In many ways, Indelible feels like a young relative of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s 1996 stage play that bloomed into a movement. Ensler ’s words, channeled through different characters, challenged generations of norms that alienated women from their anatomy— and, by extension, their potential for both pleasure and power. It marked a shift in time where words made public what privacy had never protected or empowered.
The Vagina Monologues is, these days, everything from edifying to hopelessly essentialist, but there’s no question that it was foundational in inviting women to recognize that, whatever you’ve experienced, you have not done so alone. Indelible in the Hippocampus, too, invites us to bear witness to the voices that aren’t the loudest, the splashiest, or the most demanding of a platform, but are the ones in whose many facets we can all recognize ourselves.
Andi Zeisler is the author of We Were Feminists Once and is the co-founder of Bitch Media.
Interview with Alix Kates Shulman By Jennifer Baumgardner, with Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert
In 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was published and hailed as the first novel of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It sold more than a million copies, and its author, Alix Kates Shulman, went on to write more than a dozen works of fiction, memoir, essays, and children’s literature. I first interviewed Shulman in 1993, when I was a young assistant at Ms. magazine, and we’ve remained friends ever since. At 87, Shulman is editing (with Honor Moore) the anthology Writing the Women’s Movement (Library of America, 2021). Her best-selling first novel is out in a new edition, which inspired a reason to interview Shulman again, this time with WRB interns Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert, at her loft in lower Manhattan.
Jennifer Baumgardner: What was going on in your life and in the world when you were writing Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?
Alix Kates Shulman: I found the movement in December of ’67. I was a housewife-mother. I had had a wonderful job as an encyclopedia editor, but you couldn’t be pregnant and keep your job. There was no maternity leave; you couldn’t “return” to work, because your job would have been filled by somebody else. So, there I was, at home with two little kids, keeping house and doing some freelance work, and I heard on WBAI these young women talking about a new movement: Women’s Liberation. They gave the name of a group— New York Radical Women—a telephone number, and a date and address for the meeting. I wrote it down, went to that meeting, and that was it.
I first conceived of this book at our 1968 Miss America protest. The Women’s Liberation Movement was barely a year old. As I marched, it suddenly came to me that the Miss America Pageant and the prom queen beauty contests all over America were the same. At that time, the pinnacle of female achievement was the Miss America crown. I wanted to show how being judged by men, with looks counting for so much, affected us. I think it was Ros Baxandall who said, “Every day in a woman’s life is a Miss America contest.” We were competing to get the man. Because the only legitimacy a woman had was through her man. I wanted to write a novel with a prom queen heroine, which would show the ways that women were oppressed.
JB: Were you already writing before the Women’s Movement came into your life?
AKS: I had written a couple of children’s books—largely because I had kids and was desperate for some that had positive girl characters and weren’t so sexist, which was a new word back then.
I was writing stories, too. Of course, they were rejected because they were feminist. Well, this was before the Movement, so they weren’t exactly feminist, but they were about women. The first one became the first chapter of Prom Queen, about leaving her husband. And it had the character’s name: Sasha Davis.
I was writing stories, and nothing was happening, and then suddenly the Movement started founding feminist journals. My first fictions were published in Aphra, the first feminist literary journal of the Second Wave. It’s named after Aphra Behn, a seventeenth-century writer said to be the first woman writer to earn her living writing. There was a huge push at the beginning of Women’s Liberation to re-find, reclaim, and write about so-called “lost women.” Or those just not recognized by the male literary establishment.
JB: Prom Queen has a fractured timeline. Why did you approach it that way?
AKS: There was this man I had known in the early fifties and used to beat at chess. Chess was almost exclusively a male activity; women didn’t play, but I played and beat him so he thought I was smart. I met him again at a party in ’69, and, by that time, he was an editor at a big publishing house. He said he read my story about Sasha Davis leaving her husband in Aphra and, “If you ever write a novel, I want to look at it.” I went home and made an outline for my novel. Since it was that story that attracted him, I thought, “I’ll start with that, and then flash backward from childhood on.”
My initial idea was to start every chapter with an episode at the Miss America protest, in order to indicate that it was a feminist novel. And the frame was not going to be her leaving her husband so much as twenty-four hours in Atlantic City. At about chapter three, I saw that this structure was clunky, even silly; the frame wasn’t working. I didn’t need to telegraph it as a political novel. Just let it be. I dropped the protest frame, and it was so freeing for me.
JB: The very last scene is in the beauty shop. Sasha’s getting her hair cut. She’s trying to connect to her earlier self by wearing her hair the way she did when she was named prom queen at her high school. As she’s under the dryer, she starts to panic. It’s a very bad haircut. When she gets home, her husband reacts with horror, as if she had hurt him with this bad look. Sasha says something falsely conciliatory and then goes and calls her friend, Roxanne.
AKS: The beauty shop scene is the culmination of the novel. Among other things, it’s about how it’s a fool’s errand to try to look like what you used to look like. It’s absurd, and it doesn’t work. It was very important to me that the book end with some intimation of the Movement, but nothing overt, so I ended the book on a woman’s name: Roxanne, Sasha’s best friend.
I struggled with how to end it. I know for some young women, who didn’t have children and a wandering husband, like Sasha, that was not a satisfying ending.
JB: It’s very subtle and very packed with meaning. Did your editor understand it right away, that it was like Nora slamming the door?
AKS: Yes, exactly! Sasha picks up the phone and calls Roxanne. If you’re a perceptive reader, you know that means she’s going to say, “Can I come and stay with you? I’m leaving.” Because that also happens earlier in the novel, when Sasha leaves her first husband.
It’s a prescient #MeToo novel, too, because she—poor, little Sasha—is oppressed by so many guys trying to get into her pants, whether it’s rape or other kinds of sexual assault or, in the work context, a quid pro quo. To me, looking back at it, it’s a catalog of everything that was going on then and lots that is still going on now. Some things are different. Virginity is no longer required in high school, for instance, but there’s still massive slut-shaming.
JB: That strict box around virginity and being desirable has been reconstituted for this generation in a way that looks like sexual freedom, but it’s really like enforced exhibitionism—being coercively asked to send nudes, being expected to know how to do things from a weird porn menu.
Let’s talk about tone: the book describes marital rape, date rape, abortion, and harassment, but Sasha laughs a lot of it off. She has her eyes on the prize: having a big life. The language of today, a time when we’re finally taking harassment more seriously, is often about trauma and PTSD and interactions making you “feel weird.” Where Prom Queen was once perceived as an angry novel, Sasha might now be perceived as not sufficiently understanding that she was violated.
AKS: Right, well, first of all, this novel presents a pre-feminist world. Second, I wanted it to be a comic novel. This book was written out of my rage—feminist rage, which I’m so happy to see has been revived! My approach, as a writer, was to see it all ironically. I thought, when I wrote it, that only the ten people in my consciousness-raising group would get the humor, but it turned out that, by the time it was published, hundreds of thousands of people had gone through consciousness-raising just in a couple of years. And they wanted an interpretation of their experience that was feminist.
In terms of Sasha’s reaction to rape and harassment: Sasha has her goal, which is to experience life as fully as she can without getting trapped, without getting a reputation, without being ignored, without being thrown on the garbage heap. She uses whatever assets she has to make her way through this maze of oppression that is waiting for her at every turn. She thinks, “If I just get through this, then it’ll be okay.” But no, at the next turn, there it is again, oppression in another form. “I’ll get through this, and it’ll be okay.” She avoids victimization by not letting it wreck her. That’s her strength. And she goes onto the next self-appointed task. I see it as funny that Sasha—who is not me the writer, only the narrator and the protagonist—thinks she can escape the bad treatment if she gets the right man, or if she gets the abortion, or if she doesn’t let whatever’s happening mess up her life.
Actually, we in consciousness-raising were not stopped by all the horrible things that happened to us, either. We got together, we discovered problems that each of us thought were “just me.” We were all faking orgasms. I mean, it was everybody! And that made us laugh like crazy, to discover that we were all faking orgasms. Within the Movement, these things that we named—these ways that we were mistreated—were grist for our mill. They let us know what we had to go out and change. We felt empowered by all this knowledge, not traumatized by it. I’m not saying people weren’t traumatized by their experience, though that wasn’t a term we had. We were just like, “Oh, that guy mistreated her? Let’s go and picket his house.” It was fun. One of the things about the early Women’s Liberation Movement that gets lost now is how much fun it was. We laughed so much!
In the early Movement, the point of consciousness-raising was to make women understand that all of this experience that they just took as a given was oppression. I don’t think women nowadays need to learn that they’re oppressed. Everybody knows it. It’s true that, for decades, because of the backlash, women would say, “I’m not a feminist” even though they benefited from and approved of the changes that the Movement made. But now, suddenly—since Trump’s election—feminism is not a dirty word.
JB: I think the shift came before Trump. By 2013, a critical mass of people felt invited in, like they could be themselves and be a feminist, and started using the term. In 2014, Beyoncé famously performed at the Video Music Awards with FEMINIST in huge letters behind her. That was a big tipping point.
AKS: Well, of course there’s going to be a great variety in geography, ethnicity, age, race, and all kinds of differences. This is a huge country with a huge population. But if you can get more than a million women to march the day after Trump’s inauguration, to me, that marks a change. So that’s why I say Trump. I’m sure that it was a gradual continuum. I mean, there were always some women who proudly called themselves feminist—like us.
Kayla Bert: It actually bothers me when people use the word “feminist” loosely. Do you feel that way?
AKS: Yes, but it’s certainly better than being anti-feminist.
JB: Are you saying, Kayla, that there is a superficial consumerist variation, and that’s less meaningful?
Alice Stewart: Right. It’s cool to call yourself a feminist, but many people won’t take in what it means and execute it in their daily lives. Feminism means changing your actions and interactions, not just slapping it on a t-shirt and calling it a day.
AKS: I agree. But words do change, and, eventually, the meaning of a word can become so diluted that people have to use a new word to describe what they’re talking about. And maybe “feminism” will become one of those words; it will have to be replaced by something that you would both like. “Intersectional feminism” has kind of replaced plain feminism, but that’s a mouthful. People do make new words, so don’t worry if it has a problem.
JB: Say a little bit more about a reemergence of feminist rage. What’s the function of rage, to you, within the feminist movement?
AKS: It’s organizing, because rage is a very powerful emotion. You cannot dismiss it, you cannot put it down. And when other people see they have the same [rage] about the same thing, a movement explodes. I think it usually starts with an outrage, that people are doing this, that people are getting treated like this.
JB: What is the role of literature in a movement?
AKS: It’s very important, because literature—I mean fiction—recreates emotions, and you can reach people who might not be interested in reading an argument. I recently wrote a column in Lit Hub about books that made me a feminist novelist. One was Richard Wright’s Native Son; it was so clearly a political novel. Back in 1969, in America, fiction and politics did not go together. Politics were considered toxic to art. But Richard Wright wrote a political novel that was also very moving and very important. That gave me permission to write a political novel without feeling that I was going to be trashed by the male literary establishment. Well, of course, I was wrong about that.
JB: Art is truth-telling, but politics often has an agenda. I am thinking of politics in terms of propaganda in our hyper-polarized society.
AKS: I don’t mean anything like electoral politics. To me politics is power relations. In my novel, I was describing power relations between men and women, and that’s why I think of it as political. The power relations between men and women are so disparate, and how is a group that lacks the power supposed to respond? The novel narrates one way: by trying to make the best of each situation you can without getting killed. And then, in my next novel, organizing.
JB: One of your gifts must be being attuned to the things that are going to resonate with the largest number of people. The fact that the first radical feminist action would be at the Miss America pageant is so savvy, because everybody’s watching it on network TV.
AKS: Carol Hanisch came up with the idea. Yeah, it was brilliant. It wasn’t the first action, but it was the first to get national coverage. We had a lot of actions before that, like W.I.T.C.H., a small consciousness-raising group which I belonged to, hexed Wall Street.
JB: Witches have come back. There’s a whole spate of books coming out this fall—The Witches Are Coming, Hexing the Patriarchy, etc., podcasts like “The World Needs a Witch.”
AKS: Back then, West Coast feminists had a spiritual witchy group that embraced Wicca. We in New York were just political witches. Witches represented a certain kind of male oppression—burning!—in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and that’s why the group W.I.T.C.H. took that name.
JB: Everything with feminism right now—the surging rage, the witches— does it feel familiar?
AKS: The rage of #MeToo reminds me of consciousness-raising. I think it’s a latter-day, Internet version. Consciousness-raising was done in small groups of women, maybe a dozen members, all over the country, and it was a huge organizing tool for the Women’s Movement.
Speak-outs were the public face of consciousness-raising. The first speak-out was put on by Redstockings on abortion, in 1969. People broke the taboo and spoke about abortion publicly for the first time. Then there was a speak-out on rape, then there was a speak-out in ’75 on sexual harassment—when the term was invented. I think that #MeToo, in that it is on the Internet, is the public face of a taboo subject. It has had a huge effect, as every one of those speak-outs did. As consciousness-raising did.
When I think of today’s movement, I applaud it. I just applaud it in every way. Each generation is born to a certain set of tasks, that’s the limit of their horizon. People born after that horizon has been seen and those tasks accomplished have a different set of tasks ahead of them. They see a different horizon. So, I look to younger feminists for help in my understanding. They see further than I could see when I was their age, much further, and I look to them to see how to expand my own horizon. I’m just thrilled that the movement is reborn. Whatever form it takes isn’t for me to judge. It’s for me to learn from.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.